Comment: How punks learnt to dance

Steph Kretowicz speaks to Pete Swanson, The Haxan Cloak, Blanck Mass and RVNG Intl. about their journeys from punk to techno, and what it says about our times.

I have no idea how I got here. That is, sitting in the opposite hemisphere to where I was born, exploring electronic music and its impact on my life. And I don’t mean that just literally either. I was staunchly anti-EDM for most of my young adulthood, seeing it as somehow less authentic, less genuine a form of expression than the ludicrous posturing and chauvinism of punk culture. So, here I am, trying to map my evolution from DIY yard parties on Australia’s west coast to following the experimental herd across Europe’s electronic circuit. I didn’t know what Resident Advisor was little more than a year ago and I slightly embellished my grasp of dance and popular culture to find work with Dummy. Since then, my knowledge, understanding and exposure to electronics-based music has grown exponentially, but I still wouldn’t say I’m partisan, and I don’t think I’m the only one that feels that way.

Bobby Krlic (The Haxan Cloak) and Benjamin John Power (Blanck Mass) also reach an impasse as they refuse to self-define within the realms of punk, noise and techno where you could arguably identify their sound: “that’s your job”, Power jokes in a pub in London. He and friend Krlic are discussing their conflicting approaches to concept and experimentation, live programming and improvisation, in dialogue with a shared background in “drums, guitar, bass, ‘somebody shouting at the front”.

Power, a Bristolian originally of hardcore-drone hybrid Fuck Buttons, and Krlic, spending his teen years rooted in the independent punk band scene of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, have since turned to working solo with electronics. Blanck Mass has featured his equal parts intimate and grandiose sound scapes at the Olympics, while releasing his newest material on Daniel Lopatin’s independent Software label; The Haxan Cloak is menace abstracted and signed to Tri Angle. Playing guitar for 20 years and “as many bands as [he] could possibly join” until 18, it wasn’t until a sound art course at university that Krlic realised there were other, more interesting ways to think about and engage with music: ”It’s like when you’re bored in your relationship with your girlfriend; other people that fancy you start to become attractive.” Not content with the limiting aesthetic and outdated politics of a sound and ideology still rooted in a context over three decades old, Krlic eventually wandered on to updated musical formats, working within a more complex composite of modern cultural forms.

“I play extremely loud and it’s a really physical thing. It’s supposed to be really physical and a lot of that is a reference, or a gesture, that’s related to my background in punk.” – Pete Swanson

As the most explicit example of this evolution from 1976 to 2013, Pete Swanson’s (pictured) ‘Punk Authority’ EP – also out on Software, March 12th – presents a contradiction in terms that couldn’t be more appropriate. “It’s a fairly oxymoronic name,” says Swanson, via video call, from a room in New York. “Anyone who has spent time in the punk underground, they get how ridiculous that is conceptually, but they also understand that that exists. In a lot of ways, at times punks will mirror the behaviour of these authoritarian entities that they explicitly claim to be in resistance to,” he says about the hyprocrisy of a culture that is simultaneously opposed to and complicit in in-group conformism, “but so can techno and so can noise.” That conservatism is precisely what Krlic and Power are also in opposition to, while Swanson, with the lurching sonic grit of his current creative output, does so most explicitly: “I do think there’s a rejection of both the orthodoxy of the noise scene and the orthodoxy of techno culture.”

There’s been much discussion around artists like Vatican Shadow, Container and Andy Stott and the so-called “Death of Rave”, with a view to understanding the future in light of the past. But, with Swanson at least, it’s as if his explorations into beaten and abused club compositions is not so much a deconstruction of the one idea but a collision of many, bringing an elemental punk aesthetic to the rigid world of contemporary electronic music and making something truly exciting along the way. “A very simple articulation of that idea is that part of what I do is play on the floor,” elaborates Swanson. “I play extremely loud and it’s a really physical thing. It’s supposed to be really physical and a lot of that is a reference, or a gesture, that’s related to my background in punk.”


Pete Swanson – Life Ends At 30 (from the ‘Punk Authority’ EP)

That’s because, following the nihilism of mid-70s No Wave, not only are we working in dialogue with those enduring structures, but these structures are also running across a global music network, built on new articulations between existing ideas and constantly in pursuit of an “other”. “My dad used to get annoyed with me for just throwing the manual away,” laughs Krlic, who says, in buying new electronic equipment, a User’s Manual sets a precedent, drawing from an existing musical etymology that, to an extent, dictates its creative outcome. “You have this thing that everyone else has got, so it’s the idea of restraining yourself and pulling that back to where you’re doing the talking, the equipment isn’t doing the talking.”

“In the same way that an early punk autodidact would have picked up a guitar and played without a clue of a chord progression…someone like Power, too, is exploring his own musical language”

In the same way that an early punk autodidact would have picked up a guitar and played without a clue of a chord progression – thereby rejecting established rock tropes and creating their own – someone like Power, too, is exploring his own musical language through an ad hoc (un)method of problem-solving across styles and technologies. “This is almost how modular synths work in a sense, isn’t it? You buy your own modules, each one does a particular thing and you can add however much money, or however much time to it until you’ve made a unique sound that’s specifically set for what you wanted to do in the first place.”

Unsurprisingly, that approach is one similar to Swanson’s, who works with an array of melodic lines, oscillators and switches, around an analogue modular system. As a result, the variability for each performance is at a maximum, presenting a fairly malleable and almost entirely improvised brute live experience in a self-created realm of controlled chaos, where Swanson works as much against his equipment as he does with it. “It’s flexible on a physical level, but it’s all bound to this grid; the clock that the synthesiser produces.”


Pete Swanson live in Amsterdam in January 2013.

Perhaps, then, this new era of music is not so much about solving problems but creating them. In a world where a glut of information and conceptual freedom threatens to drown out any sense of a fixed reality, placing certain restrictions on your creative output is an important consideration. “On a cultural level there needs to be a foil,” Swanson elaborates, on the necessary evils of adversity for compelling innovation, “If I was doing what I was doing and there was no super uptight techno or super orthodox noise scene, or whatever, it would be pointless. Because it wouldn’t be seen in context and it would just be this super messy thing. I think, while a lot of people in the experimental music world really fetishise this idea of things not being in dialogue with each other, sound, including the most out-there pieces of music, are. You need to have the more orthodox work to have yours exist in context. Like Skrillex, or whatever garbage you want to compare my work to, it’s valuable because it’s something that provides contrast to what I do.”

“It’s a global basement now” – Matt Werth, head of RVNG Intl.

That brings us back to the politics of punk. You could argue the nebulous notion of it as a concept, but punk culture, as defined by a traditional aesthetic, by-and-large compels the progressively minded to move on. “It’s a limited subculture. A lesson that I learned early on is that subcultures often mirror negative systems that exist in the larger culture and I was hoping to get away from that a little bit,” laughs Swanson. And that’s not least for punk’s marginalising sexual and gender paradigms. Because when emblematic global zine, Maximumrocknroll dedicates one column to Layla Gibbon’s monthly summary of women in punk, another one to Brontez Purnell’s black and queer perspectives, that’s when you realise that the social structures being represented are almost identical to the mainstream. It’s a microcosm of institutional inequality where an identity deviating from the white, male and heterosexual norm is ghettoised in its own “special section” in a misguided attempt at promoting interaction, while actually drawing attention to its difference and excluding it in the process.

The same could be said for the surplus of reformist punk offshoots – from Riot Grrrl to queercore – because when I referred to the “ludicrous chauvinism” of punk culture earlier, I wasn’t only talking about the “male” kind. It also pertains to any of those sub-genres that, by their very nature as a way of life, are bound by segregationist ideology. It’s an underground elitism that actively alienates itself from the mainstream community it purports to want to challenge (and, perceivably, change), which in this day and age of ubiquitous social media and mass communication, is pretty much impossible.

“It’s a global basement now,” says Matt Werth, head of RVNG Intl., a label responsible for releasing some of the most exciting new music crossovers in the past couple of years. Like me, Werth’s formative interactions with music began in punk rock isolation, which he felt all the more keenly having grown up in the Southern United States during the pre-internet era. “Dance culture had not permeated where I came from, that’s for sure,” he says, citing a lack of alternatives for the inevitability of becoming involved in punk culture: “picking up a guitar and making music on it was kind of the default mechanism.”

Now based in Brooklyn, the RVNG roster is hardly exclusive to dance music in a conventional sense. It’s credited with putting out the ‘FRKWYS’ collaboration series, featuring some of the most interesting young hybrids like Laurel Halo, Sun Araw and James Ferraro, as well as the ‘RVNG of the NRDS’ 12” series that rode the unavoidable nu-disco wave of the past decade. “I feel like dance music has certainly reached a very heavy capacity and dance music production qualities have completely permeated.” And while Werth’s business model remains firmly grounded in the DIY ethic of his punk past, he also says the evolution of his aesthetic tastes was both a gradual and foreseeable one. “With the economic shift and with the industry expanding, with the population expanding, more people have access to software-based tools to create electronic music on their computers.” That’s because the biggest (and clearest) reason for the ubiquity of electronic music, is access to the technology. “It’s a lot easier to launch an application to start recording than it is to gather a group of people in a lot.”

“Now, I even see how the men behind Heatsick and HELM could have logically emerged from a joint noise project and why Hype Williams and Laurel Halo could share a label with Burial.”

As for me, I’ve chewed through punk mutations over the past few years like never before, starting with back room performances of Sewn Leather and DJ Dog Dick, Psychedelic Horseshit and Black Dice, before moving on to Maria Minerva and Ital, Laurel Halo and James Ferraro. None of it made much aesthetic sense at the time but with the benefit of hindsight, I can now understand how exactly ex-Dummy editor Charlie Robin Jones could drop Manic Street Preachers and Einsturzende Neubauten in the same sentence, while Software could extend its palate from the ambient drone of Oneohtrix Point Never and Blanck Mass to the body crush of Swanson’s ‘Punk Authority’ and aggressive footwork of Slava’s ‘Raw Solutions’. I even see how the men behind Heatsick and HELM could have logically emerged from a joint noise project and why Hype Williams and Laurel Halo could share a label with Burial. “If someone had told me when I first heard them that five years later they’d be on Hyperdub, I literally would have laughed,” Krlic chuckles.


Hype Williams – Rescue Dawn

“You’ve only got to look at the majority of ‘end of year’ lists last year…PAN totally smashed it, Blackest Ever Black, Public Information; there’s definitely some kind of zeitgeist going on.” – Bobby Krlic (AKA The Haxan Cloak)

These days I get excited almost exclusively by projects on those labels, plus Hippos in Tanks, Spectrum Spools in the US, and Tri Angle in the UK, all because they carry a distinctly punk, community-based ethic for the 21st century and there has to be something to it. “I mean there definitely is,” offers Krlic, “it’s undeniable, isn’t it? You’ve only got to look at the majority of ‘end of year’ lists last year, for bands and labels. PAN totally smashed it, Blackest Ever Black, Public Information; there’s definitely some kind of zeitgeist going on.”

That’s why, when I hear the analogue rhythm of collateral noise that is ‘Punk Authority’ – streamed from the cloud, filtered through my shit laptop speakers and into my ears –I’m reminded that this is the repositioned punk aesthetic; a mutation of mode and medium that sees Swanson not only carrying his hardcore roots through his “messed up techno” but elaborating on why he does so in the first place. In fact, that very title sums up the spirit of a new era in music. It’s a migration from the guitars, standard chords and stagnant ideologies of punk to a modern cultural relevance. And as I wipe a stranger’s vomit from my arm in the midst of Pete Swanson’s brutal audio demolition live, blasted from a hardware set up that I can’t see for all the tall, bearded bodies around me, it occurs to me that, yes, this feels very familiar.

Software will release Pete Swanson’s ‘Punk Authority’ EP on the 12th March 2013. Tri Angle will release The Haxan Cloak’s ‘Excavation’ LP on the 15th April 2013.

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